Your humble columnist does not endeavor to dismiss or denigrate college basketball. I like college ball. I really do. I just like it for somewhat different reasons than many people.
I’m with the masses on some of the stuff. Gambling is fun, and the NCAA Tournament is perhaps the easiest, most accessible, and most exciting form of sports gambling in the known universe. Those first four days of the Tournament are a viewing experience like no other, with constant drama and intrigue flooding your eyeballs for twelve straight hours each day, even if you have no connection whatsoever to the specific teams in question. It’s terrific.
Passion, excitement, and gambling — that’s what most people cite as their reasons for liking (and even preferring) the college game. All well and good. You do you. What’s oftentimes missing, however, is you know, actual GOOD basketball. This is where I struggle. College fans like games; pro fans like the game. The distinction matters. The two leagues get lumped together because they are ostensibly playing the same sport, and one league typically feeds the other. In reality, they are similar games being played by two different species: one by regular humans and one by aliens. And the college game is a bit like science fiction. Sometimes the aliens are quite obvious, and other times they hide in plain sight with the humans. This is a big reason — perhaps my primary one — for watching college basketball: spot the aliens and study them.
This is all a long-winded way of saying the college season has begun, and with it, the scouting of next year’s NBA draft prospects. The NCAA does weirdos like me an annual solid by lumping together a bunch of the high-end talent on the first night in a kick-off event they call the Champions Classic. The event was held on Tuesday night and featured two clashes of NCAA blue-bloods: no. 10 Michigan State vs. top-ranked Kansas, followed by the headliner, no. 4 Duke vs. no. 2 Kentucky. So while most people were busy kvetching over election results, I was garnering first impressions of the current crop of aliens. Let’s get to it.
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There is obviously nowhere else to begin but with Duke. I have few rules in life, but one of them is this: if a college team trots out the three best players in the country — and at least two of them look like can’t-miss NBA superstars — then they get my top billing.
I’m talking, of course, about the Blue Devils’ devastatingly overqualified trio of R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, and Cam Reddish. It seems foolish in retrospect that Duke nabbed the top three prospects in the country coming out of high school and somehow were only ranked no. 4 going into the season. This team is going to be soul-crushingly dominant, and it starts (but doesn’t even end) with these three guys.
We’ll start with Barrett, the no. 1 overall high school recruit. Unlike Zion, he seems easier to quantify because we’ve seen players like him in the past. Everything about his game looked like the smooth, ball-dominant superstar wing NBA teams would build in a laboratory. Without getting into the politics of the one-and-done rule, it is simply disappointing we’re going to have to watch him dismantle college teams for a whole season. By all rights, he should be playing against pros right now. He’s that good. He has effortless range with sound shooting mechanics, polished ball handling and decision-making instincts, an easy control over his speed and changes of pace, and undeniable athleticism. He looked engaged on defense, and got his long limbs into passing lanes and in position to contest shots. It’s one game, of course, and I don’t want to speak in hyperbole, but for lack of a better term, he looked damn near perfect.
If there is any criticism to be leveled, it’s in how it took Barrett 26 shots to get his 33 points, but let’s not pick nits already. He displayed a tidy floor game with six assists and four rebounds in 32 minutes, and an advanced feel that belied his tender age. On the broadcast, Jay Bilas repeatedly compared him to James Harden, and I do see the parallels, even if the fact they are both lefties makes the comparison a touch lazy. Much like The Beard, Barrett shows the same ability to manipulate the defender and the geometry of the floor to get to his desired spot, along with unexpected strength to finish through contact. The effortless first step and off-the-dribble shooting ability were there, but when combined with the length and athleticism, I come up with a slightly different (albeit not left-handed) comp: Tracy McGrady.
If a player with Harden’s craft and T-Mac’s physical tools sounds terrifying, it’s because it is. I could keep gushing about Barrett, but you get the idea. The outline of an NBA superstar is very much there, and one doesn’t have to squint at all to see it. This guy is LEGIT.
Speaking of terrifying…umm…did you SEE Zion Williamson? How is there a person like him, and how on Earth is that person only 18 years old? It makes no sense. I am not old enough to have witnessed young Barkley, but based on the grainy highlights, it looks like Zion is basically teenage Sir Charles, if you made him lefty, three inches taller, replaced all the baby fat with pure muscle, and for good measure, gifted him with an extra six inches of vertical leap. I mean, what college kid in his right mind is getting in the way of this?
As a recruit, I heard the hype and saw the dunk mixtapes, but when this game began, I had one question on my mind: Sure, he can throw down crazy dunks, but can he actually PLAY? Umm, yeah, that would be a resounding ‘Yes.’ Forget the leaping ability for a second; a kid listed at 285 pounds shouldn’t have the kind of explosive first step he does. He dusted much smaller players off the dribble, and once he got a step (or just even with the defender) on the drive, his ridiculous vertical made contesting the shot damn near impossible. He played a lot of point guard in high school, and it shows in how well he reads the game for a guy with such prodigious athletic gifts. He made plays off the dribble and from the elbow, and showed a good feel for anticipating ball flight and timing on rebounds (which he then immediately turned into fast break opportunities with his speed and ball handling). His playmaking instincts might have been the most impressive aspect of his debut, and I can honestly only think of about 4-5 players on the planet who could have executed this sequence:
The early shooting returns were also good: he shot 11-for-13 for 28 points, including an early three and an off-the-dribble long two later in the game. That said, his jumper is about the only part of his game that looks the way you would expect from a 285-pound human. The form is a little clunky, he doesn’t totally square himself to the hoop, and he kind of hucks it up from his shoulder — it’s vaguely Zach Randolph-esque — but if he hits from the outside consistently, then I don’t know what possible answer there could be for him defensively.
There’s no way of telling what his ceiling is yet (or if he has one), and it is obviously blasphemy to say it out loud, but aesthetically (and athletically), there are noticeable hints of LeBron James to Zion’s game. No less an authority than Steve Kerr said the same. Beyond the now-familiar cognitive dissonance of a person so large also being so explosive, there were lots of smaller, more ephemeral moments where a little tinge of LeBron deja vu would be present: using his speed and frame to create space and an angle to get a layup on the glass in a way other guys cannot; crossing his man up at the three-point line, taking one dribble, leaping from further away than should be possible, and throwing down a tomahawk jam, all in the span of two seconds; the anticipation and coordination necessary to see and execute the fast break bounce pass in the video above; the way defenders just seem to bounce off of him on the drive; and the look of “what the hell just happened?” on opponents’ faces after he pulls some supernatural shit. There’s something special brewing with this guy, and I am here for all of it.
This is all incredibly unfair, because if he were on any other team in America, we’d be standing around the water cooler, talking about how good Cam Reddish is. He’s set on a slightly bigger frame than Barrett (6’8″ and 218 lbs vs. 6’7″ and 202), boasts similar athleticism and only moderately less skill, but make no mistake: Reddish also looks like a terrific player. He made a number of impressive defense-to-offense plays, which could ultimately reflect the way he’ll need to get his shine given his spot in the pecking order on Duke’s roster, rather than the type of player he’ll actually become long-term. Much like many of Kentucky’s one-and-done guys who historically take on smaller roles in college before blossoming into stars in the NBA, we may not get to see the full breadth of Reddish’s game this season as he does his best to fit in around the overwhelming talents of Barrett and Williamson. In any case, he looks every bit a top-10 talent, if not higher. Scary stuff.
And somehow, we aren’t even done with the “NBA talent on Duke” section yet! Freshman point guard Tre Jones — who is, in both appearance and playing style, practically a clone of his older brother, former Dukie and current Minnesota Timberwolf Tyus Jones — will inevitably get overlooked in the draft process because of his low usage and cushy ecosystem, be drafted lower than he should, and have a long, productive NBA career. It’s practically written in his genetic code. Even Marques Bolden, who appeared to be a complete lost cause as a freshman two years ago and wasn’t much better last year, appears greatly improved and could perhaps have a cup of coffee at the pro level at some point. I’m not even sure what to make of Jack White (no, not that one) yet. What an embarrassment of riches.
Even more amazing is how Duke didn’t put up this performance against some early-season cupcake; it was against freaking Kentucky, the no. 2 school in the country! UK has its own set of NBA prospects, so despite the utter pants-ing they endured, they deserve a little love too. Coach John Calipari’s recruiting class this year lacks some of the star power of previous years (in part because Coach K landed most of the big fish for Duke), but there are some potential NBA role players in the mix. Their most talented player appears to be Keldon Johnson, a 6’6″ freshman guard who scored 23 points on 8-16 shooting against Duke. He’s got NBA size and athleticism and projects as a competent scorer, but nothing about his game shouted “Star!” at me from the rooftops. Looks like a late lottery guy on first inspection.
Pro scouts keep expecting a breakout which never comes from sophomore forward P.J. Washington. He has an NBA build (at 6’8″ and 225 lbs), but in the several times I’ve now watched him play, I’ve yet to see any glimpses of a real impact player, or even a well-defined skill set. He gets labeled as “versatile,” but sometimes that’s just code for “doesn’t do anything particularly well.” Cal will work his usual magic and get Washington a shot at the next level, but I am skeptical he’ll stick in the league long-term. Freshman big man E.J. Montgomery (6’10”, 225 lbs) showed a faint outline of something resembling talent, but I’ll need to see more before I can render a judgment. Freshman guard Tyler Herro put up decent stats but didn’t look particularly impactful. The rest of the roster is full of standard fare, low-talent try-hards for whom the NBA has little use. It’s tough to evaluate any of these prospects individually due to how badly they got outclassed as a group — and of course it’s only one game — but no one on UK blew my skirt up, and even in a loss, we’d probably see some glimpses if they were there.
The evening’s undercard featured no. 10 Michigan State, who replaced two lottery picks from last season (Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Miles Bridges) with… ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The team mostly back-filled its rotation, and while they will undoubtedly be a tough out at the college level (as they generally are under coach Tom Izzo), there isn’t much NBA-level talent here. I suppose backcourt mates Joshua Langford and Cassius Winston could get looks at the Summer League/G-League level and perhaps sneak their way onto the back ends of rosters, but that’s damning them with faint praise. Freshman forward Aaron Henry showed a little life in limited minutes, but he doesn’t strike me as a one-and-done type.
Their opponent, no. 1 Kansas, appears to have a bit more to work with in terms of prospects. Junior forward Dedric Lawson played his first game for KU after transferring from Memphis and sitting out last season. He looked the part of an athletic combo forward with some playmaking chops, putting up 20 pts/14 rebs/6 asts/2 stls/2 blks, albeit on 5-18 shooting. He should get a look at the pro level, but he is already 21 years old, which will certainly depress his draft stock, to the extent it exists. KU’s main one-and-done possibility is freshman combo guard Quentin Grimes, who looked solid in his debut, putting up 21 points (including 6-10 from deep) and 4 assists in 30 minutes. He’ll need to show more than just the outside stroke to stay in the top-10 where he is currently projected, but it’s a promising start.
Had 7’1″ junior center Udoka Azubuike come along during the era of Kelenna Azubuike, perhaps he would have been considered a top prospect, but these days, big men with his skill set just aren’t highly sought-after in NBA circles. Azubuike does appear to have improved his footwork from last season, and he isn’t a total plodder a la Dakari Johnson, so maybe some team will take a chance on him using the old “you can’t teach 7-1” logic, but he remains a woeful free throw shooter and not nearly as good of a rebounder as one would expect from such a massive human, so his chances of sticking in the league look remote.
I will be back with more scouting insight — and eventually mock draft content — as the season progresses, so stay tuned!